Weeks after the tragedy in Charlottesville, normalcy returned to the Virginia campus, and Scott Beardsley’s thoughts returned to his book about nontraditional leaders in academia.
So why this book? Coming from a family of educators, he says, he was compelled to write about not only the importance of higher education but its constant evolution, as well.
“I have lots of people in my own family who were educators,” he says. “My grandmother was an educator, she was ahead of her time, an astrophysicist and a researcher in a time when nobody did that. My uncle became a nontraditional president in higher education and I always admired him. That’s one thing that attracted me to this subject.
“On another level, I just feel that higher education is so central to everything we need to do as a country and as a world, and that it’s one of the most important things that we do — and that getting the right leadership in higher education is really important. It’s an interesting topic, and higher education is undergoing a lot of change and being a leader is getting tougher and tougher.”
REASONS FOR REJECTION, AND LESSONS FOR GOING FORWARD
Beardsley was rejected in his first attempts to join academia, most notably in 2014 when he applied for the presidency of Dartmouth College. “The catalyst for this book is my own experience having entered a few searches, and I wanted to show what I learned,” he says. “What I learned in the process was not what I knew going into it.” The reasons he lost out at Dartmouth, and the lessons he learned and used to his advantage in seeking the deanship at Darden, make up perhaps the most compelling chapter of Higher Calling.
“Deep into my own candidacy for a presidency I did not ultimately win, I made a mistake that could have been avoided,” Beardsley writes to open Chapter 6, “Advice to the Ambitious.” He goes on to describe an “airport meeting” deep into the process in which the search committee, after the customary grilling, invited him to ask one question. He asked, and received an informative response — but “a few days later, I learned I was out of the running.”
What had gone wrong? Seeking feedback from the consultant who had brought him into the search, Beardsley learned that he’d committed a cardinal sin: He hadn’t directed his question to the student in the room. Moreover, his comments that he hadn’t really had a boss at McKinsey made it sound like he might be difficult to control.
“All cultures have their versions of kabuki theater,” he writes. “I now know that everyone else assembled in that airport meeting room expected certain gestures, in line with an implicit protocol. When the time came for the candidate’s one question, it was only by addressing it to the student representative in the room … that the candidate would display the proper deference and signal the right priorities. Unfortunately, I didn’t know this then.”
The rest of the chapter contains sections dedicated to informing potential candidates for top academic jobs: “Understanding the Odds,” “Getting Into the Lineup,” “Winning the Offer.” Once an offer is on the table, he writes, the newly hired dean must be prepared to transition to effective leadership.
‘WE WILL COME OUT STRONGER’
Effective leadership, especially in academia, often means taking a bad situation and making it “teachable” — lemonade out of lemons, so to speak. That’s what Beardsley hopes and expects to occur at the Darden School in the wake of the tragic events of August 2017. The learning process continues.
“In the aftermath, I’ve been very uplifted by the reaction of people both in the community here but also by other support that we’ve received throughout the country,” he says. “We’ve received some amazing photographs from other top business schools that have stood in solidarity with Darden. That really warmed our hearts. Texas, Indiana, Berkeley, Michigan — they sent us beautiful photographs: ‘We stand with Darden.’ And we really appreciate what they did.
“What we’re trying to do, and what the university is trying to do, is turn this into a learning opportunity and to also reaffirm our own values and what we stand for. And I’m sure that every student at Darden and at the University of Virginia will never forget those events — and we will come out stronger.”